Monday, 26 May 2014

It's This, Or Nothing

"Mysticism begins when the totally transcendent image of God starts to recede; and there's a deepening sense of God as immanent, present, here, now, within me. Augustine's line was "God is more intimate to me than I am to myself” or “more me than I am myself." St. Catherine of Genoa shouted it in the streets, "My deepest me is God!"

So you must overcome the gap to know—and then Someone Else is doing the knowing through you. God is no longer "out there." At this point, it's not like one has a new relationship with God; it's like one has a whole new God! “God himself is my counselor, and at night my innermost being instructs me,” says the Psalmist (16:7).

The mystics are those who are let in on this secret mystery of God's love affair with all souls, and recognize the simultaneous love affair with the individual soul—as if it were the only one God loves. It's absolutely our unique affair, and that sets the whole thing on a different and deeper ground than mere organized religion can ever achieve by itself.

Recently, I gave my friend Alex my crucifix. Ten inches high, steel, comtempory design: the hanging man announcing, wordlessly,  acceptance of the struggle, the inevitability of suffering, and ultimately, the victory of the human spirit over everything, even death. 

"If this holds no meaning for you, hand it back to me, because it's precious: but if you understand  it, keep it." He kept it. 

I am done with collecting things, it is time to be giving them away. This, I believe is wisdom. I am well into the second half of my life and my work now is to give out: this is all the purpose one's life needs. To be done with collecting, gathering in, building up making a name for oneself, getting to the top of the heap .. . It's the season for letting go, it is the death before I die, it is freedom. I write this with a light and grateful heart: this isn't morbidity or depression, this is parting with the things, material and spiritual that I no longer want or need, so that I may proceed unhindered into my last years, hopefully, joyfully, with a deeper awareness of what really matters. 

The opening paragraphs were written by Richard Rohr OFM, whom I met when he visited England a few years ago, and whose teachings have had  such a great effect on me. 

Someone once asked me if I am a mystic.How I laughed! One of those first half of life things I've given up, is trying to be good. ( If mystics WERE good... )  I was such a prig when I was trying to be good. Now I don't try to be anything except me, and that, I am learning is good enough! That battle's over. I do though, know what the mystics know, which is the outcome of another battle - faith v skepticism. I am a theist, but it is the God of the mystics, the Indwelling One that I know and honour, not the bossy intolerant anti-Christ of pseudo-religion. 

No, my God is the lover of my soul, who, funnily enough, appears to have faith in me to accept the struggle, to acknowledge the suffering and ultimately to know, as another mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich did, that, " All shall be well. And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."


Thursday, 22 May 2014

Bull's Eye

I am taking a course through from The University of Washington on 'Resilience'. I am pretty resilient one way or another and bouncing back from a knock has always proceeded at a steady pace.  I thought I'd take the course in order to use it to help other people. That'll come as no surprise. 

Well! I am bowled-over. Week Two was all about  clarification of values. This seemed easy to start with, but proved to be quite an existential challenge, because I had to ask myself, "Who am I and how do I define myself?" 

First off, I realised that I habitually spend far too much time asking the question: "Who do other people think I am, and what is their opinion of me?"

Just seeing THAT was worth the effort of working through the course. 

"Who I think I am?" might be quite an interesting discussion, but I'm not going to have it here, because  it's a fairly fluid concept and may change at any moment. It's what I DO about who I think I am that  was the focus of the Bull's Eye exercise. Which you might Google for yourself if you're interested. 

Given a while to think about it, I find that one of the least satisfying parts of my life, is my habit of attempting  to please other people. In the process of which, I don't always say what I really think, and I don't always do what I really want to do. 

I have no radical agenda here. I'm not going to do anything very life-changing. I'm just going to quietly, softly, say what I really think, and tip-toe around doing what seems right to me. 

It's an exciting prospect. 

Quietly and softly -  making a difference by being true to myself:

A New Kind of Doing -Fr Richard Rohr

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"In the second half of life, we do not have strong and final opinions about everything, every event, or most people, as much as we allow things and people to delight us, sadden us, and truly influence us. We no longer need to change or adjust other people to be happy ourselves. Ironically we are more than ever before in a position to change people—but we do not need to—and that makes all the difference.
We have moved from doing to being to an utterly new kind of doing that flows almost organically, quietly, and by osmosis. Our actions are less compulsive. We do what we are called to do, and then try to let go of the consequences. We usually cannot do that very well when we are young.
Now we aid and influence people simply by being who we are. Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else. An elder’s deep and studied passion carries so much more power than superficial and loudly stated principles. Our peace is needed more than our anger. "

Monday, 19 May 2014

"Vengeance is Mine," Said The Computer Programmer

It's all in the title isn't it?

Actually, what I'm thinking about isn't THAT dramatic. I was reading a study embarked upon by 'associates of Princeton' which could mean just about anything, what with me being a sceptic, but nevertheless it was diverting, and I thought I'd pass it on.

I think there needs to be rules:

Rule #1: Never take part in an experiment in any area of psychology. You're not going to come out well. I don't care if the data is randomised and anonymised: you're still not going to feel good. 

There may be other rules. We'll see.

So this random population of poor students get to play puzzle games against an opponent at 10cents a pop. At the end of the session, the money is to be divided out. I think remembering how, is probably important, but I'm going to carry on even though I've forgotten, and go back to check if I can't wing it.

Rule #2: Never be afraid to wing it if there's no chance of being caught out. Otherwise, Don't. 

What the poor students don't know, because they aren't told, is that their 'opponent' is actually a computer that is programmed to lose. I think computers HAVE to be programmed to lose, otherwise they don't, but I'm a little hazy on this, and am open to correction. 

Rule #3: Always own up to ignorance. It doesn't make you a better person, but it does make you look less stupid in the long-run.

Well anyway, the computer is programmed to ALWAYS ask for an equal share of the bounty, even though it has lost, every time, by just one point. We're not having this are we? It may only be a matter of a few cents, but fair's fair. The guy lost and isn't going to get half, no matter what. 

Rule #4: If you must be hauled in by the Psychology Department to do research, always be nice. It fucks up the data, and this is ALWAYS a good thing. 

Moving on. The real human being protests the opponobot's lack of realism, and the opponobot responds in one of three ways.

1. Carries on insisting on half the booty.
2. Admits it may have been a little over-ambitious in its demands
3.Admits its being a jerk and promises to mend its ways. 

Guess what? The real live human being gets absolutely no satisfaction from responses one and two, and carries on wishing opponent in Hades, whilst to response number three, feels the milk of human kindness flowing  again, and is willing to forgive and forget. 


Rule #5 Watch yourself. If you want to ingratiate yourself with a real human being, do sorry as well as be it. Or, don't mess with robots. They don't know nothing about anything when it comes to playing fair.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Who the Hell is Arthur C. Brooks?

" In my work today, I promote the free enterprise system, because I believe it has created more opportunity for the poor than any other system in history."

THAT is Arthur C. Brooks. I am going to shock some of you by saying that I think  that AC Brooks is worth listening to. 

He writes for 'The New York Times',  which generously allows hangers-on like me to read ten articles every month for free. I follow it on Twitter. In which, by the way, I do NOT own shares. 

My heart lies, as I think it always will, on the left, and, who knows, I may hold my nose and vote Labour in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in horror of UKIP, but it certainly won't be the knee-jerk ballot that it used to be when I believed in more and knew less. 

My current position is neither left, nor right, but up in the air. Ed Milliband took the Labour leadership by stabbing his brother David in the back, and has done nothing since that has made me think better of him. I suspect I am not alone. 

The caveat is, that Arthur C Brooks has to be right. The poor MUST be better served in order to maintain the freedom and dignity that democracy owes to ALL its citizens. Go look, see what you think. Capitalism with a human face. You will find him here:

Thursday, 15 May 2014


My Twitter account has all of 23 followers, and  about five of them are real people. If you want to follow me, please do: @maryeffrancis, but I don't really mind if you don't. I have little of any consequence to enlighten you with, especially in 140 characters, though it is fun trying. My Twitter account keeps me up to speed with the accounts I follow and has become a major source of information. So, thank you Twitter, for taking me off to The New Scientist and it's report on the impact of freeing up the web through social media. 

Way-hey! I thought, this'll be good! 

It wasn't.

ONLY a few years ago, "Web 2.0" – a term now as quaint as the "information superhighway" – was considered revolutionary. Rather than relying on the lumbering dinosaurs of big media to get news and entertainment, people could film their own videos and voice their opinions directly via Twitter and YouTube. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and the Arab Spring showed that people could use social media to organise, mobilise and democratise. Emerging technologies promised a liberating future.

So far, so good. But Alice Marwick's analysis reveals what we already know: 

Rather than activism or even creative pursuits, social media was mostly used to boost popularity and status. I observed that these people were intensely concerned with how many followers they had on Twitter, how many people read their blog and whether they were invited to the events broadcast on Dodgeball (later, Foursquare). As a result, they carefully designed their online interactions to enhance or conceal facets of themselves, creating personas which they imagined would be eagerly consumed by onlookers.

 Of course I know this, because this is exactly what I do myself, and am not particulrly proud of it. Though,'eagerly consumed' is hardly how I would describe the traffic to this blog. Between 200 and 300 views each month, which is hardly viral, but nevertheless, each view is valued - don't stop! 

So what happened to the promise of the internet to change everyone's life for the better? Hugely wealthy corporations control it, repressive governments block it, porographers and juvenile narcissists swamp it -   is there any hope for the gorgeous altruism that once offered the promise of the freedom of exchange of ideas? 

There is, of course. Three weeks ago, I found, and I'm already a fan. I shall forego theoretical physics (Harvard) and 'An Introduction to Computer Science and Programming' (MIT) having  plumped for 'Resilience' (Washington) and, starting in September, 'The Art of Poetry' (Boston). All may be audited for free. 

Week Two into Resilience has we, the students, writing down our values and listing a week's worth of behaviours that will have us choosing what we really want to do in the light of who we really want to be. I WAS going to post them here, but, well, there are a few things I have to sort out first. To do with popularity and status... . 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Cosmic Naughty-Step

Last Week's New Scientist featured The Death of God, though in all honesty it didn't put it QUITE like that, if for no other reason than death presumes erstwhile life. The study under scrutiny will tell you what you already know: that in Western society the majority approach to divinity is 'Who cares?' God has become for many one great irrelevance. We are no longer 'for' or 'agin' religion, we just don't give a tuppeny damn about it.

I say, "we", but that wouldn't be exactly true, because I have something entirely inexplicable that I don't seem quite ready to let go of. 

It seems to me that enlightened faith is a good thing. On balance. I mean, it prompts altruism, offers comfort and gives you an opportunity for a sing-song on a regular basis. But to get to a reasonably enlightened position, you do have to jettison a lot of nasty stuff. All the elements of Jehovah, for example, that are blatently evil: murder and mayhem for starters. Or as one of my tecahers put it:

" You can't have a god who says ,"I have loved you with an everlasting love," whilst at the same time promising that she'll do indelicate things to you with redhot pokers, for all eternity,  if you don't do as you're told. " 

My evangelical friends at the City Mission are convinced that hell exists and awaits everyone who doesn't toe the line in the here and now. As I have long since accepted that I have a very limited capacity for toe-lining, I am in a bit of a quandry. Do I 'fess up and say, "Actually, I think what you believe is barbaric." and get myself drummed out of what is a really splendid organisation, or do I keep mum whilst never assenting to the hell-fire and damnation requirements? 

The gospel according to me is pretty basic. 

You are completely and unconditionally loved
You are of infinite worth
Whoever you are, whatever you do, is none of my business
You're better off being kind and doing good, because you're hardwired to benefit from it
All of the above are God in me reaching out to God in you, (whoever he is) as an equal.

No angels or demons, no heaven or hell, no cosmic naughty-step, just this wonderful life on a beautiful planet with a consciousness capable of reaching beyond the stars to adventure, wholeness, and, with a bit of effort, peace. 

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Tthe Starfish Project

I am beginning to draw back a veil and peer into a  very  painful part of my life: the time I had a breakdown which led to my retirement from teaching five years ago, at the fabulously early age of fifty-eight.  

What I am appreciating now that I no longer have anger and resentment to deal with, is the amazing support certain individuals gave. There was Ray, who suffered alongside me with infinite patience, my daughters, whose love also sustained me, and Carol who made a lovely memory book for me, which I was looking at yesterday, and which prompted this post. Thank you Carol!  (She reads this!) 

Some events around that time were pure grace. Islands of normality in a sea of pain. One such was a Study Visit organised by The League of Commonwealth Teachers to the Western Cape in South Africa.

Alongside the educational engagements, there were trips to a winery, a penguin colony and the Stellenbosch Botanical Gardens - wangled by me, the eternal flower freak.  I may have some photos to post somewhere ... 

Jan Isaac, our party leader, gave me a gift that day, a beaded magnet shaped like a starfish. She knew how I was leaving my profession with a deep sense of failure, and reminded me of the starfish story:

A boy walks along the beach and encounters thousands of stranded starfish. He begins to throw them one by one back into the sea. A passer-by, taking in the enormity of the task remarks:

"That's not going to make much difference"

"It will to HIM ," replies the boy, tossing the next one into the waves. 

Making a difference to one, then another one, then another one. Perhaps as a teacher, I did. I'd certainly like to think so.

The starfish is attached to the fridge, and reminds me that failure isn't always the right word for when the world comes crashing down. Certainly in my case: I have had at least four years paid leave that I wouldn't have had, and good ones at that. What seemed like disaster at the time, now has a very different aspect.

All of the above is preamble to following-up on The Life Of Brian. 

My do-gooding with Gloucester City Mission is a consequence of my precipitate departure from the work force. Helping others is a great way to get over yourself and other assorted calamities, and I would credit the Missioners, and the Salvation Army volunteers too, with playing a large part in my healing. 

When beginning volunteering in any field, I guess you're given advice about not getting  too involved ... But Brian just seems so helpable. So I threw all caution to the winds and set about to make a difference. 

Brian is now working for us using his considerable talents gained as an estate manager before his meltdown. Just a couple of hours a week at minimum wage with meals and advice, resources and opportunities to start his own business. 

I don't know how this intervention will end: as long as Brian isn't adversely affected, it doesn't matter. I guess once you've thrown the starfish back into the sea, the rest is up to him. 


Friday, 2 May 2014

Medical Myths

I have been keeping an eye on the advice the health pundits are heaping on me, and have noticed something recently. Some powerful,messages are being challenged by newer and better research. As contemplation of my extinction has been much on my mind recently, I am relieved to doscover some of the more sensational exits are not so clearly marked as was once supposed. Here's three bits of re-information I came across today:

1.Stress is bad for you:

 Well, only if you think it is:

2. Fat people are unhealthy:

Not so. Overweight patients with heart disease have better survival rates than thin ones. Same goes for type 2 diabetes and kidney diease. 

Samantha Murphy: New Scientist 2 May 2014

3. Mammeograms save lives:

Very few. Contributes to many unnecessary operations.

Smoking though, is still terrible for you, so keep away from the fags. I probably won't do drugs either, as my addicted acquaintencies aren't looking good, and I'll be careful with the booze too. Most other health advice looks to be taken with a pinch of salt. No more than that, obviously ...